The marketing for Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw seems to be predicated on two things. The first being that Fuqua made Training Day 14 years ago, but since then has put out a long list of macho, tough guy garbage, and the second being that Jake Gyllenhaal is all puffed-up and covered in fake tattoos to play boxer Billy Hope in a film that’s built around one gimmicky, unsympathetic performance by Gyllenhaal, with little regard for anything else.
The film itself is little more than a standard boxing flick. You could even lump it into the realm of uplifting sports film, since it’s ultimately a movie about overcoming the odds — even if those odds are created by the protagonist’s wealth of terrible, self-destructive decisions. Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, a boxer who rose up through foster care and impoverished beginnings to become a world champion. He’s also a loving husband to his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and loving father to his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence), despite the approaching end of his career. All of this is torn apart, however, after a scuffle with a rival boxer (TV actor Miguel Gomez) ends in the sudden death of his wife, and the quick unraveling of Billy’s life as he loses his title, his house, his wealth and his daughter.
It’s not hard to guess where the arc of the film is going after this as Billy pulls himself up by his bootstraps (after a lot of wallowing in self-pity), which gives him a chance to redeem himself in the ring. Since there’s not much dramatic tension (let alone originality), all that’s left is what Fuqua the filmmaker can bring. If you’ve seen the rest of his filmography, you’ll know this isn’t much. There’s no style on display here (he’s still stuck using a lot of frustrating handheld camera work) and even less energy, a sad state of affairs for a film that’s focused on something as kinetic as boxing.
Helping just as little is Gyllenhaal, who’s officially turned into a full-on dreary method actor. He’s beefed up considerably to suit his role, and mumbles his way through the entire film. The script, unfortunately, gives him little else to do than form a character that’s generally unlikable, or at the very least cursed with some terrible decision-making skills. The idea, of course, is to watch him grow, but Billy — as written — has no depth, undercutting the notion of Southpaw being some sort of character study. The sense is that Fuqua’s decided to make an updated version of Rocky (1976), but the lack of an amiable title character and the unfortunately natural pitfalls of modernizing such a story (like Southpaw’s tacked-on grittiness) make the film a tough sell. Rated R for language throughout, and some violence.